Who are frontline workers and why are they so important?
Frontline and deskless workers helped keep society and the economy going during the pandemic. So how can organisations now engage and reward these vital employees?
Over the last two years, we've seen the rise of the frontline worker. Throughout the pandemic, they played a vital role in keeping both society and the economy afloat. Often holding the most thankless and low-profile positions, these deskless workers in manufacturing, healthcare, education and many other key industries, gained the public recognition they deserve for maintaining the functioning and flow of daily life.
However, as we emerge from the pandemic, it's clear that the world's 2.7 billion frontline workers are unhappy with their lot.1 In 2021, more than one in two were planning to quit their job due largely to a lack of engagement and a sense of feeling "voiceless". As 80% of the global working population, these deskless employees are largely responsible for the employment sea change that's become known as the Great Resignation. However, the fact that they're now in high demand gives them a power they've not had before.
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"For the first time, maybe in decades, [historically low earners] can say, 'Look, I can quit my job easily, find another job and get a pay increase at the same time,'" says Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University. "And in fact, that's why they're quitting."2
For employers looking to reduce the risk of a rapid turnover rate, giving frontline workers a reason to stay should be a strategic priority. They represent your organisation to customers, clients or patients and are a determining factor in just how agile your enterprise can be. In short, your success depends on the well-being and ongoing growth and development of those who don't have a desk in the office and may not even have an email address.
What is a frontline worker?
Forbes describes the frontline worker as someone "who must be present in a specific place and at a specific time to perform their jobs".3 They're your 'on the ground' employees who engage directly with the public or provide services that are essential to your organisation or wider society. Essentially, they perform a task rather than planning or strategising.
They include health and social care workers, law enforcement officers and the armed forces, shop workers, production and food processing workers, janitors and maintenance workers, agricultural workers, transport workers, education and childcare workers, and essential public services staff amongst many others.
In the US, frontline workers make up 52% of all workers. In the UK, 2019 figures show that frontline workers, many of whom were designated 'key workers' during the COVID pandemic, make up 33% of the total workforce. The UK government defines these key workers as those working in:
- Health and social care: Including doctors, nurses, midwives, paramedics, social care workers and those working in the health and social care supply chain
- Education and childcare: Including teaching and support staff and social workers
- Key public services: Including journalists, those working in the justice system and charities delivering key frontline services
- Local and national government: Including those involved in the COVID-19 response and the payment of state benefits
- Food and other necessary goods: Including those working in food production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery
- Public safety and national security: Including police, armed forces personnel, probation and prison staff, fire and rescue staff
- Transport: Including workers in air, water, road and rail transport
- Utilities, communication and financial services: Including workers in banks, oil, gas and electricity, postal services and waste disposal
Some industries contribute more to the total number of frontline workers than others. For example, according to Econofact, a US commentator on economic and social policies, educators represent 12% of all frontline workers, while the combination of "heavily male, mostly blue-collar categories" make up 45%. This includes deskless workers in transportation, construction and installation, maintenance and repair, as well as farming, fishing and forestry.
What's the difference between a frontline worker and a remote worker?
While neither frontline employees nor remote workers are typically found in the office, the latter are still likely to have desk-based roles and a dedicated working area, whether that's at home or in a purpose-built co-working space. Depending on company policy, they may also have the option to choose a hybrid work model for even greater flexibility.
For frontline workers, a day's work may involve clocking in at a factory, warehouse or hospital, or spending time on the road carrying out inspections or driving vehicles, but in every scenario, home working is usually impossible. They're also unlikely to need a personal computer or laptop to do their jobs and they may not have their own company email address or access to company intranets.
Overall, frontline workers are also likely to earn less than their remote working counterparts. Anthony Klotz, an associate professor of business at Texas A&M, suggests that this simmered into frustration during the pandemic, when doing their job could also be a serious health risk. Klotz saw The Great Resignation coming, heralded by widespread burnout, the impact of people re-evaluating their work-life balance and a sense of unfairness amongst frontline workers that they couldn't work from home and establish as healthy a work-life balance as their remote working counterparts.
Another impact of COVID was the acceleration of existing trends. Some roles that were previously frontline have since moved online or been replaced through automation, particularly those involving higher levels of physical proximity to others.
Retail is one obvious example. According to a 2021 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, roughly three quarters of people using digital channels for the first time during the pandemic will continue using them "when things return to normal". The potential impact of this on frontline workers previously on the shop floor is considerable. Meanwhile, in the UK, thanks to the rapid shift to online banking, high street banks have been closing their doors at a pace. An average of 60 branches closed every month in 2021, with hundreds of job losses as a result.4
The importance of frontline workers
Even as many frontline workers are finding new roles or finding theirs transforming within the digital landscape, it remains true that without these essential employees many businesses would be lost.
Frontline teams in contact with the public are responsible for shaping the customer experience and delivering on your promises as a brand. They reflect your company's vision, culture and values. To a large extent, customer satisfaction lives or dies through them. And so does your customer loyalty and repeat business.
Your frontline workers know your customer well. Their first-hand insights are invaluable, and they can be highly effective problem solvers. They can inform your direction of travel as a business, shape company policy, contribute to product development and influence marketing campaigns.
So how do you do that? Let's have a look.
Seven ways to empower frontline workers
More than 50% of frontline workers believe they can find another job in the next six months. They're ready to walk away from your business if it's not a fit – and they won't stick around if they don't get a good first impression in their new role either. Thirty one per cent have quit a job within six months of starting.5
In addition to the cost of training up a replacement, you then have to deal with the resulting lack of continuity within the team and the absence of bonds that take time to develop but play a vital role in oiling the wheels of effective collaboration.
In teams that are constantly changing, frontline workers are likely to be less efficient and miss out on colleague connections and the mutual support that comes with them. This increases the likelihood that they'll feel demotivated, stressed or isolated.
With this in mind, empowering your frontline workers to do their best work is essential. Here are seven ways to empower yours.
1. Provide the right tech
While desk-based workers have access to digital tools that make internal communication and collaboration easy, including having an email address, frontline workers usually don't. Their absence from the physical workplace calls for an effective virtual alternative to help them feel connected, engaged and consistently 'in the loop'.
Insights from a Harvard Business Review study back this up, revealing that 86% of frontline employees want better technology, and 'better' often means giving them the ability to stay connected. Messaging platforms, document sharing, video conferencing, scheduling software, mobile apps and intranet sites can all help fill the gap – provided that they come with the necessary change management and training programmes to ensure that they're fully integrated and teams know how to use them.
However, the need for effective tech isn't just limited to communication and collaboration. According to a 2018 Deloitte study, frontline workers waste an average of 8% of their time looking for information – three hours lost for every 40-hour working week. And that adds up.6
Your essential workers need relevant, real-time data to inform their decisions and allow them to work effectively and efficiently. The electronic medical record (EMR) systems now used by nurses to assess critical patient information are a great example, allowing users to work more quickly as well as cutting down on tedious paperwork.7
And it's not just frontline teams that suffer when tech isn't up to scratch. For most frontline organisations, less than 20% of staff are reachable within five minutes, with managers relying on direct mail, posters, "dozens of phone calls" or the laborious process of arranging face-to-face meetings to coordinate activity.7 When communications are this slow, there's a limit to how agile your business can be and how successfully it can grow.
2. Get everybody talking
McKinsey reports that employees who have strong relationships with their colleagues and their managers are more likely to stick around. In other words, effective communication must include everyone.
The results from the Workplace Deskless Not Voiceless survey reinforce this need to democratise company culture and allow information to flow outwards and upwards as well as from the top. The research shows that only 14% of employees feel connected to their HQ, and just 3% believe that they have a direct line of communication to the C-Suite.
It's a powerful argument for getting the right communication and collaboration tools in place and using them wisely – and there are plenty of positive results when employers do take action. When an effective virtual workplace is involved, 25% of employees feel more connected to their HQ and the number of people feeling connected to the C-Suite more than doubles.
3. Ask frontline workers what they think
Your frontline teams are your eyes and ears. They engage on a regular basis with your clients, customers or patients and know how they behave. They have high levels of product knowledge and first-hand experience of your company logistics. The challenge lies in giving them a way to share their insights, but there's currently a significant obstacle to this: the current perception of their employers.
90% of managers report that their workers feel empowered to share ideas with them, but only 45% of frontline workers actually do. In fact, 54% of employees claim that they are voiceless, while 83% of managers claim that they give all of their employees a voice.
A savvy manager may do well to ask their frontline workers how they want to open up this line of communication, as well as what they need to do their job better. Regular pulse surveys, social media and online chat can help those conversations happen.
You may also want to think about inviting frontline staff to engage with and comment on customer feedback. This can be an empowering experience, allowing them to provide context and bring extra clarity and understanding to what customers are saying.
Equally, by giving your essential workers a voice, you and the rest of the organisation will gain a better understanding of what they do and how they do it. It gives them a place in the bigger picture, and a sense that their contribution is meaningful and worthwhile. You can better reward great results so that people who work hard get the recognition they deserve. Given that employees who don't feel adequately recognised are twice as likely to say they'll quit within the year [SC21], this is an effective strategy for frontline staff retention.
It also leads to another very important point. It's not enough to invite feedback – you need the processes in place to acknowledge and respond to it, and potentially act on it too. This also requires a culture that supports knowledge sharing and non-hierarchical collaboration. It can never be a box-ticking exercise – and for business leaders who see the true value in what their frontline workers can bring, it never will be.
4. Include everyone in the bigger picture
It's not enough to have goals and a vision for your organisation. They need to be communicated effectively – which means clearly, simply and with regular follow-ups, particularly to those not based inside your HQ.
To feel engaged, included and valued, your deskless workers also need to understand the very specific part they play in helping the organisation achieve its objectives and how the vision is realised through the work they do on a daily basis.
Your unique value proposition helps define the company culture. When this filters through all levels of the business, it can have a powerfully unifying effect, establishing the idea that every employee is part of the tribe, not separate from it. It helps create a workforce that buys into your vision for success and aligns themselves with the goals set to achieve it.
5. Support your frontline managers
The supervision and support of a team of deskless or dispersed workers falls to frontline managers, who tend to sit on the first rung of the management hierarchy. Job site Indeed [SC22] describes them as "overseeing the daily operations of an organisation". They may monitor production, enforce plans and policies, direct admin teams or manage floor staff. They also make up roughly 60% of a company's management ranks, overseeing up to 80% of the entire workforce.
However, recent research shows that organisations are neglecting their frontline managers, with 59% feeling like head office has no interest in nurturing their careers. They often operate with a limited ability to make decisions or work with any creativity. To quote McKinsey, this makes companies "less productive, less agile and less profitable".
Its suggested solution? Allow frontline managers the time "to address the unique circumstances of specific stores, plants or mines; to foresee trouble and stem it before it begins; to encourage workers to seek out opportunities for self-improvement."
For more suggestions, read our article: Why connecting frontline managers is good for business.
6. Create autonomy
Frontline staff have a unique perspective on your customers. By delegating responsibility and trusting them to make customer service-related decisions, you involve them in the business and make their roles more rewarding and less transactional. You also support them in being more efficient.
The same logic can be applied to deskless workers with less direct contact with the public. A McKinsey report recommends empowering employees with better access to information and more potential to innovate – something that operations platforms can do through the rapid dissemination of new intelligence.
Research has also shown that giving people greater control over their working lives reduces stress and improves performance. This could mean giving deskless workers choice over when they work or flexible break times, empowering them to address unpredictable working hours with options to create a better work-life balance.8
Implicit in this is the requirement that change needs to be supported at the highest levels of the business. For your frontline workers to be genuinely empowered, it may require a culture shift in favour of autonomy and a willingness to let go of how things have been done before.
7. Provide relevant training
With 93% of employees saying they'd stay with a company that offered them the opportunity for professional growth and advancement, investing in the development of your frontline teams is an effective way to reduce turnover.
This begins with a well-planned onboarding process, which puts all new recruits through a formal induction process and gives them the training they need to get up to speed. It's also an opportunity to introduce your company culture, policies and vision and it reduces the pressure on colleagues who would normally have to compensate for colleagues still learning the ropes.
From then on, implement an effective and ongoing learning and development strategy that embraces different learning formats and languages if that's applicable for your business. And it needn't involve the traditional training room setup.
Microlearning through short, engaging pieces of content is an easy way to fit training into a busy working day. Meanwhile, the many courses that can be delivered via mobile phone can help your frontline workers stay abreast of industry trends as well as helping them learn on the go. Gamified learning is another option, bringing a disparate workforce onto a single platform to test their knowledge and create an entertaining way to develop their skills, perhaps by competing in quizzes to reach the top of a leader board.
Upskilling your frontline teams is a way of keeping talent within the business, as well as bridging the skills gap that exists in many industries. For those whose roles will change or disappear due to automation, it's a step into a position more aligned with a digital future.
Training your people can also have a positive impact on your bottom line. It can cost as much as six times more to hire from outside than to build within, and developing your existing workforce also improves the employee and customer experience.
The future of frontline work
In Europe and the US, demand for physical and manual skills in repeatable and predictable tasks is expected to decline by nearly 30% in the next ten years.9
Although the march towards automation may be placing some frontline jobs on shaky ground, it's making others safer and much less monotonous. Take artificial intelligence, for example. From healthcare to manufacturing, AI is a powerful way to identify patterns and problems and provide real-time, data-driven insights. It can remove the need for people to carry out repetitive, labour-intensive tasks in potentially dangerous working environments. And it can help streamline processes and free workers up for more engaging activities, including their own ongoing professional development.
However, as the digital landscape evolves and we navigate the demands of an always-on economy, it's essential that frontline workers are part of the process. According to Jim Vinoski, Manufacturing Contributor at Forbes:
"Looking at the future of frontline work, it should be a reassessment of the people who do all of that vital work for us. What are their needs? How do we make sure that we're valuing them as people and contributors and not taking them for granted? How do we give them a fresh start so they can get what they want out of their jobs?"10
This requires the ability to listen, understand and adapt accordingly. Whereas once employees had to shape themselves to fit the company, the paradigm now, says Jeff David, President of the Fitler Club, is how do employers adapt to the workforce?
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